The U.S. State Department appears to be preempting and diluting the Senate’s Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 (S. 1039) by placing some Russian officials on a visa blacklist.
Last week, the State Department placed some 64 Russian officials on a visa blacklist that would prevent them from entering the United States. These Russian prosecutors and policemen all played a role in the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, the most famous whistleblower in post-communist Russian history.
Moscow’s position is as revealing as it is mind-boggling: It is ready to endanger the carefully constructed cooperation between U.S. and Russia in areas ranging from arms control to Afghanistan and Iran in order to protect a handful of corrupt police investigators and their high-ranking bosses who apparently stole hundreds of millions of dollars from the Russian state.
While the Russian Foreign Ministry loudly protests that the U.S. is being tough on Russia, the imposition of U.S. sanctions looks more like the State Department’s effort to prevent the Senate initiative and to save President Obama’s “reset” policy.
Russia has threatened to “respond asymmetrically” if the Magnitsky bill becomes law. In a tit-for-tat, President Dmitry Medvedev reportedly instructed the Foreign Ministry to draw up a list of U.S. officials who would be banned from Russia and prevented from banking there. These include prosecutors and other law enforcement officials working on cases of the arms dealer Victor Boot, who is accused of supplying weapons to terrorists, and pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who smuggled weapons and drugs and was nabbed by the U.S. in Africa.
Russian diplomacy now appears to fly cover for suspected organized criminals.
Much more serious are Russian threats to curb cooperation on Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, and North Korea. If implemented, this would be the end of the reset.
The Obama Administration is clearly worried that inconvenient pressure from Congress is infuriating the Russians. It sure looks that it does. However, if the reset policy is truly based on mutual interests between Russia and the U.S., then cleaning the Augean stables of Russian corruption and criminality should not derail it.
Yet Moscow’s angry and overblown reaction to the visa ban against suspected criminals working for the Russian state clearly demonstrates its priorities and exposes its anti-Americanism. As Freedom House President and the former Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights in the George W. Bush Administration David Kramer points out in a recent congressional hearing, if Russia is willing to hold back the reset solely based on the Magnitsky case, then the U.S. needs “to reexamine the relationship.”
So why is the State Department treating the Senate as an irritant? Unlike the Senate, the State Department did not implement asset freezes on questionable Russian officials. Foggy Bottom is against the Magnitsky bill and is campaigning for its defeat. However, according to Kramer, the bill has been integral in keeping the pressure on Russia and has “done more for the cause of human rights [in Russia] than anything done” by the two previous Administrations.
The U.S. policy toward Russia and other market authoritarians should be a balance of protecting American national interests and upholding American values. The cause of Sergei Magnitsky does that. The flagging “reset” policy does not.